Editorial: Legislature must embrace strict ethical standards

Legislature must embrace strict ethical standards
Editorial: Asbury Park Press 09/24/06

The screaming headlines of political corruption, using public office for private gain and campaign mudslinging that plays the ethics card for political gain make plain yet again that real ethics reform must remain the cornerstone of any hope for restoring the public trust.

There is a concrete, attainable agenda that the Legislature can and must pursue, now, if it is to demonstrate that it means business when it comes to ethics. As special ethics counsel to acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, charged with recommending ethics reforms for the executive branch of state government, we made a series of sweeping recommendations and set forth stringent prohibitions that now, commendably, bind the executive branch. The Legislature should hold itself to the same strict standards.

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy on the acceptance of gifts. The present ethics laws prohibit legislators from accepting gifts worth more than $250 in total value from a single source, for any matter related to their official duties. Much has been written of the need to enforce the requirement that legislators return, in a timely manner, any value in excess of the $250 per source limit. While this requirement must be heeded, much of the discussion misses the most essential point: Legislators should be banned from receiving any gifts, of any value, from lobbyists, governmental affairs agents or any other interested parties.

Whether it's a bottle of inexpensive wine or Dom Perignon, lunch at a diner or orchestra seats to a Broadway show, gifts from those doing business or hoping to do business with the state are designed to curry favor. We recommended, and there is now in place, a flat ban on the acceptance of gifts for all officials and employees of the executive branch. The Legislature should hold itself to the same standard. A prohibition on any gifts given by outside parties and related in any way to the legislator's official duties establishes a clear standard that is easy to apply and sends the right message: "We can't be bought. Don't even try."

Merge the Joint Legislative Commission on Ethical Standards into the newly empowered State Ethics Commission. The legislative commission, responsible for investigating ethics complaints against legislators, has been routinely described as ineffective, unable to forcefully address allegations against its own.

New Jersey's system mirrors the federal system. In a season of scandals, congressional ethics panels remain on the sidelines. So far this year, at least seven federal lawmakers have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct, such as conspiracy, securities fraud and improper campaign donations, yet no major ethics investigations have taken place in Washington.

Merging the legislative commission with the new and boldly empowered State Ethics Commission, which is charged with investigating executive branch ethics violations, will centralize and make consistent the application and strict enforcement of the state's ethics laws. Other states do this without any apparent diminution in legislative powers.

Ban dual officeholding. Holding multiple offices promotes a consolidation of influence that alters the delicate balance of power in politics. It promotes careerism and cronyism, and erodes the public's confidence in its leaders. Tom O'Neill, in his recent report put forth by the New Jersey Policy Perspective and Demos, makes the point particularly well: New Jersey's citizens deserve the assurance that elected officials are free of conflicts of interests, and that public officeholding is rooted in public service, not personal enrichment.

Ban pay-to-play at every level of government, including redevelopment. New Jersey must finish the task of pay-to-play reform, severing, as Harry Pozycki of the Citizens' Campaign has made plain, "the remaining links between corrupting political contributions and the awarding of government contracts." Critical to the task is the Legislature's willingness to close existing loopholes in the laws, and place counties, municipalities and developers within those strengthened laws.

Make the newly promulgated Uniform Ethics Code binding on the Legislature and local government. The uniform code, promulgated by the State Ethics Commission, is a significant accomplishment. With its clear rules and stringent penalties for non-compliance, it is destined to become a model for national replication, and already has garnered favorable attention from other states wrestling with the task of ethics reform. It binds the executive branch. It should bind the Legislature, and be made binding on local government.

Local government is bound by the Local Government Ethics Law, a largely toothless statute. It contains, for example, no clear ban on gifts, no explicit ban on nepotism, insufficient disclosure requirements for business interests, inadequate penalties for transgressions and no direct power to cause removal from office. While a growing number of municipalities have taken up worthy initiatives aimed at ethics reform, there needs to be consistency in the application, supervision and control of much tighter standards. The rules of the game must be made plain, and the penalties strict.

Close the door to pension padding. This is the deplorable practice of promoting state officials shortly before retirement, thus allowing the officials to receive an undeserved public pension based on a higher salary for a position they never held. Not only should such manipulation of the pension system be banned, but New Jersey should also enact new forfeiture provisions in the state's pension laws to keep public employees convicted of serious wrongdoing from being rewarded. Pensions should be earned, given to public officials and employees who truly serve the public and respect the power they have been given to do good.

The public yearns for assurances that it can rely on the integrity of its elected officials. There are reasons for great hope, but more remains to be done. Only by showing a united front against ethics violations can New Jersey make real the promise of lasting reform.

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